South Dakota

Adventuring (and Eating) our Way Through the Black Hills

Nestled in the west of South Dakota are the Black Hills, a small mountain range rising from the Great Plains that’s quickly becoming one of our favorite places to explore. More than the stunning landscapes and friendly locals, the Black Hills boast an array of adventuring opportunities AND charming local spots to quench your thirst or satisfy your cravings. (Because let’s be real, we live for experiences, but we equally live for our next meal. #Foodielife) Here’s a little recap from our most recent trip to the Black Hills!


BIKING ALONG THE MICKELSON TRAIL

What once was a railroad, The Mickelson Trail is over 100 miles of breathtaking scenery and gentle slopes, passing right through the heart of the Black Hills. No matter where you enter the trail you’re bound to have a blast, but we recommend renting bikes at Rabbit Bicycle in Hill City and riding north. We went a few miles, got hungry for lunch (like we said - live to eat), and pulled a quick u-turn back. We passed through tunnels, rolling hills, tree-lined paths, and the cutest little log cabins. It’s the perfect way to start your morning! (Just don’t forget to pay the $4 entrance fee!)


LUNCH & WINE TASTING AT PRAIRIE BERRY

The famous Prairie Berry Winery is a must when you’re in the Black Hills. Family owned and operated, they’ve been making South Dakota wines since 1876. Many of their “untraditional” wines are made out of fruit, like “Red Ass Rhubarb”, but they do carry traditional varietals like Chenin Blanc and Meritage. Beyond their wines, the kitchen at Prairie Berry is EXCELLENT. Homemade soups, sandwiches, flatbreads, loaded salads… they have something for everyone. Everything is fresh and everything is delicious. (And don’t forget to join in on the free wine tasting after lunch!)

KAYAKING ON THE PACTOLA LAKE

Some of our favorite lakes are nestled in The Black Hills. The combination of crystal clear water with sprawling green hills makes them incredibly picturesque and peaceful. We went kayaking on Pactola lake on a day that was overcast, and it was still beautiful. Whether you rent kayaks for a couple hours or for a whole day, there’s so much to see and explore along Pactola lake. Next time we’ll pack a picnic and find a spot on the shore to stop and eat!

DINNER AT THE ALPINE INN

Located in downtown Hill City, the Alpine Inn is a historical landmark that possesses one of the best steak dinners in the area - for under $12! You read that right - it just might be the best deal in town! Word is definitely out about this iconic place, but don’t let the crowds scare you away, the wait goes quickly. Have a drink (or two!) in the adjoining bar until your name is called, and you’ll be diving into your bacon-wrapped filet in no time. Note to the picky eaters - there are only two things on the menu for dinner… steak and potatoes or German dumplings and veggies. Make sure to leave room for dessert, because there’s definitely more than 2 options (Probably 20+ dessert items!). If you need help, their peanut butter pie is life changing. (Also, the Alpine Inn is cash only, so plan accordingly!) 

HOT AIR BALLOONING WITH BLACK HILLS BALLOONS

Name a better way to see a place than by hot air ballooning - we’ll wait. The team at Black Hills Balloons makes the entire trip a breeze (literally), and the view from the balloon is jaw-droopingly beautiful. Once landed, you drink mimosas and snack on cheese and crackers with your new-found friends. It was definitely the highlight of our trip!

LUNCH AT BLACK HILLS BURGER AND BUN

We’re self proclaimed “burger-holics”. No matter where we’re traveling, we try to find the best burger in that area. It’s just what we do. Black Hills Burger and Bun in Custer came highly recommended by several of our followers, and… wow. It may be some of the best burgers we’ve ever had. Ever. It’s something about the homemade buns, juicy burger, fresh toppings and sauce that’s honest-to-goodness perfection on a plate. It’s worth a drive to Custer just to try these mouth-watering burgers. They’re that good.

HORSE BACK RIDING THROUGH BLACK HILLS NATIONAL FOREST

Whoa Nelly, this was fun! The team at Rockin’ R Trail Rides are total rockstars, making even the most city-type folk feel comfortable in a saddle. We embarked on a two-hour ride through the picturesque Black Hills National Forest. We learned about the surrounding foliage, rode past deer-filled meadows, and scaled rocky mountains with ease… it was perfect. We now want horses. Anyone have a stable we can use?

DINNER AT SKOGEN KITCHEN

Not only is this the cutest, most stylish restaurant in all of the Black Hills, it is also the best. Skogen Kitchen has only been open for a little over a year, but already they’ve won recognition as the best restaurant in all of South Dakota - and it’s easy to see why. Their food is fresh, thoughtful, and flavor-filled. It’s the kind of restaurant where we consciously eat as slow as possible, to make every bite last… It’s that good. Make reservations, as it fills up quick!

While we blitzed around seeing and eating as much as we could, what’s pulling us back is that there is still so much more! If you have any suggestions about spots we should explore on our next trip, leave a comment! We can’t wait to go back.

Why We Keep Coming Back to South Dakota

“You’re going where? South Dakota? AGAIN?” 

That’s the reaction we got from our parents when we recently told them we were heading back to South Dakota. Being self-proclaimed “wanderlusters”, it’s not often that we go to the same place twice. We’re always keeping things interesting and exploring new destinations… so needless to say, returning to South Dakota just a year after our first trip came as quite the surprise to our family!

Here’s the deal with South Dakota. There is SO MUCH TO SEE. It definitely takes more than one trip to experience everything that this grand state has to offer. Whether you’re an adrenaline junky looking for the next thrill, or a hiking enthusiast looking for the next scenic peak, or a history buff, fascinated by American history and folklore, South Dakota has something for everyone. Still hesitant about it? We’ll prove it to you.

THE TOWNS

South Dakota is filled with gems (literally and figuratively). Little iconic towns that slip under the radar, but shouldn’t be missed - like Deadwood! Deadwood, South Dakota is straight out of a country western novel. Legends like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok roamed the historic streets of Deadwood, looking for gold and a good time. And it’s still a darn good time!! You can catch a free Wild West re-enactement, get your game on at the many casinos in town, and grab a drink at the notable Saloon #10

Custer is another one of our favorite towns, located in the heart of the Black Hills. Its Western roots also run deep, and is filled with gift shops, galleries, delicious restaurants, and an overwhelming amount of rock shops. (Bobby’s favorite!)

THE DRIVES

We love nothing more than blasting some country music and exploring new scenic roads. Pretty much EVERY road in South Dakota is scenic, and there wasn’t a time Alli didn’t exclaim “Wow! So pretty!” when we were driving. 

On our first trip to South Dakota, we were blown away by Needles Highway. It’s 14 miles of twists and turns through sprawling granite spires, and located just 30 minutes south of Rapid City. 

This time around, we ventured through Spearfish Canyon, a DREAM of a drive for anyone that loves wildlife, outdoor activities, and breathtaking waterfalls. Built on an old rail bed, the views from this drive are fantastic, and filled with photo opportunities along the way. 

THE MONUMENTS

No matter how many times we see it, Mount Rushmore continues to amaze us. There’s no doubt that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln would be in awe of this epic mountainside memorial. The sheer magnitude and precision of Mount Rushmore is jaw-dropping, and it’s no wonder that it attracts over two million visitors annually! 

And then there’s Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse is the world’s largest mountain carving, and even though it isn’t yet completed, it’s a monument that can’t be missed! Crazy Horse was a Native American war leader that earned great respect from both his people, and his enemies. He’s one of the most iconic Native American warriors, and participated in several famous battles during his lifetime. The memorial is funded entirely by private donations, and to this day there is no set completion date. But you can go visit this incredible monument, and even watch a laser show there at night!

THE ADVENTURES

From horse back riding, to hot air ballooning, to kayaking and mountain biking, the opportunities for adventures in South Dakota are limitless. On the last day of our trip we went zip lining with Rushmore Tramway Adventures, and it was EPIC!! You fly over a mile of forest, reaching heights of up to 400 feet, and unobstructed views of Mount Rushmore! The guides are friendly, knowledgable, and full of wit and humor. Our two hour tour flew by! (Literally) It’s absolutely a South Dakota adventure you do not want to miss. Oh, and did we mention how comfortable our harnesses were? They use top-of-the-line equipment, making the entire process a breeze. We’ll be back!


THE STEAK DINNERS

You read that right. We’d be lying if we said the steak dinners in South Dakota weren’t one of the main factors for our return trip. If you love a good steak and you love a good deal, make note. Some of the best steaks we’ve had (at some of the best prices!), are in good ol’ South Dakota. 

One of our favorite places for steak and all the fixin’s is the appropriately named Legends Steakhouse in Deadwood. Located in the historic Franklin Hotel, Legends is one of the best places for steak in the state, and the long lines and rave reviews will prove it. Reservations aren’t required, but we recommend you make one. And be sure to get a side of the truffle mac n cheese… we’ve been craving it ever since!

If these five factors haven’t solidified your need for a trip to South Dakota, then we give up!

Just kidding. But quite frankly, we could keep going! The friendly locals, the abundance of wildlife, the campgrounds, the museums and amusement parks… South Dakota has it all. We can’t wait to return and adventure there again - who’s joining us next year?!

Dude, We Survived a Dude Ranch!

One of our favorite things about traveling is the random bucket-list experiences we get to share together. Sometimes we don't even know how bucket-list they are until we actually experience them!!

Anyway, a dude ranch is one of those experiences. We didn't really know what to expect or what we were in for, and man... was it epic. Have you seen the show, "Hey Dude" on Nickelodeon? It's pretty on point... 

 

Ghost Canyon Ranch is in the heart of the Black Hills of South Dakota, minutes from Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and the Crazy Horse Memorial. The ranch was established in 1878, and recently was taken over by Trevor and Laura Bryan and their family. They are passionate about family, nature, and horses and will definitely show you a great time. Ghost Canyon Ranch is a PERFECT place for a group gathering (family reunions!), as it has a capacity for 20 and offers an all-inclusive Western experience. You'll enjoy refreshing mountain air, gorgeous evenings, horseback riding, fishing, and relaxing. All this to say, or stay at Ghost Canyon Ranch was far to short. We basically got a taste of what a vacation on the ranch could be, and we can't wait to be back. 

We arrived in the afternoon and were greeted warmly by Trevor and Laura. We had a pretty long day of travel and we were tired, hungry, and pretty wiped out from the drive. They welcomed us with a big hug, showed us our room (more like a house!), and led us to the dining room where they had a full steak dinner waiting for us. And it was SO GOOD! 

 

We shared stories of our travels, learned about how they met, and got the scoop on what a "Dude Ranch" really is - a working ranch that accepts guests. So you can come to relax, or get to work! These past few years since they took over Ghost Canyon Ranch has been really busy for them, as word has traveled about how amazing their ranch really is. We went to bed feeling full, excited, and really honored for the opportunity to be there.

 

The next morning we woke up to picture-perfect views of the ranch, and the smells of breakfast calling us to the dining room. Laura greeted us with another home cooked meal, and told us to get our sneakers on. It was time to feed the horses!!

Laura and Trevor told us all about each horse, where they came from, their temperament, and how they daily care for each of their animals - they even let us help brush them! Odie the goat was the highlight of our morning, as he followed us around and ate from our hands - of course we HAD to get a picture with him!

As we said above, our time at Ghost Canyon Ranch was too short. We had some amazing home cooked meals, got to enjoy a beautiful evening, a lazy morning, and the peaceful silence you can only find in nature. We didn't have time to go on a horseback riding trip through the mountains, watch the sunset from their jacuzzi, or get get to work as a couple of ranch-hands... but we'll be back. 

 

We'll definitely be back.

Thank you to South Dakota Tourism for sponsoring this post!

South Dakota MUST-DO: SUNRISE Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour

For us "city folk", South Dakota is the ULTIMATE escape. It has gorgeous blue skies, majestic landscapes, and diverse wildlife (something we don't have in LA!!). It is here, away from the hustle and bustle, that you can enjoy silence, nature, and an epic bison burger (another thing we don't have!). While you may desire to avoid your alarm clock in favor of rest, we STRONGLY advise that you spend one of your mornings in Custer State Park on the Sunrise Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour. You can do this tour throughout the day, but the sunrise (or possibly sunset) tours are the best for seeing wildlife - and totally worth the 5am wake up call!

During our time in Custer State Park, we stayed at the Custer State Park Game Lodge. It is a beautiful stone and wood lodge built in 1920 that served as the “Summer White House” for President Calvin Coolidge! It's recently been updated and is a truly stunning property. (While we're at it - we highly recommend having a glass of wine on the porch before dinner!) The Jeep tours originate here at the lodge, and for the sunrise tour you have to get there quite early. 

We found our guide waiting for us outside of an awesome open-air jeep. If you go at sunrise like we did, be sure to bring a jacket because it was definitely chilly until the sun came up. While the tour is called “Buffalo Safari”, we really were in search of a LARGE assortment of critters: buffalo, deer, elk, pronghorn, wild turkey, pronghorns, prairie dogs... and more!

 

When everyone arrived, we set off. The air was brisk, but our coffee in hand definitely helped. Within about two minutes we saw our first elk and deer, as well as a beautiful Mountain Bluebird.

Shortly after, as the sun was just peaking over the Black Hills, we saw our first herd of buffalo. You never know how many buffalo you are going to see, so every opportunity is a great time to take a photo... but little did we know, we were about to see a LOT of buffalo. The first herd we saw was a little farther away, and at our closest point we were maybe 50 feet from the nearest buffalo. 

We continued on, and came upon another big herd of buffalo. This is where we want to pause and mention our #1 reason for taking this tour. The Buffalo Safari Jeeps ARE THE ONLY VEHICLES ALLOWED TO GO OFF THE MAIN ROADS. That being said, this next herd was maybe 300 feet off of the main road. There was a couple sitting in their truck looking at the buffalo, and we went right past them, off the road, and headed in for a closer look. We preceded to drive THROUGH the herd.... So close that we could have touched them! It was INCREDIBLE (and mildly terrifying)! At one point we just stopped the Jeep and sat in the middle of this herd. Many of the buffalo were staring at us, while others were just doing their thing, not bothered by us at all! This was probably one of the coolest moments of our trip. No joke.

Following this unforgettable buffalo encounter, we came upon our first prairie dog “town”, which we learned is what you call a prairie dog community. Apparently prairie dogs are highly social animals, and they live in towns full of extensive underground burrows, tunnels, and chambers. They’re cute little critters, but according to the locals, highly annoying!

Throughout the tour our guide shared tons of fun facts and details about the animals and parks. Like, how did the “Black Hills” get their name? The Lakota Sioux Native Americans named this area “Hills that are black” because of their dark appearance from a distance, since they are covered in trees.   

The Sunrise Buffalo Safari was truly the highlight of our trip to South Dakota... it was a morning we'll never forget! (And we have about 2,000+ photos to make sure we never do!!) ;) So get over to South Dakota, sign up for the sunrise tour, and make sure to have a warm jacket and charged camera. It will be an epic adventure!

Thank you to South Dakota Tourism for sponsoring this post!

You're Going Where?!? Here's Why YOU Should Go to South Dakota!

We recently spent a long weekend in South Dakota, which raised a lot of questions from our followers. "Why South Dakota?" "What made you choose that state?" "What did you do there?"... We're here today to tell you about how underrated South Dakota is. We figure to best explain, we should break this thing down. Here's ten reasons (and a lot of photos!) to prove why you should make this beautiful state your next travel destination:

 

1. IT'S BEAUTIFUL

Starry skies, stunning cliffs, majestic rock formations, crystal clear water.. We could go on and on, but we'll let our photos do the talking:

2. IT'S FULL OF CUTE CRITTERS

The animals were, hands down, Alli's FAVORITE part of South Dakota. Both of us couldn't get over the wildlife, and really, we couldn't get away from it! 

 

We drove through Bear Country USA, a park in which you literally drive around bears living in their natural habitat - UNREAL! We couldn't believe how close we were able to get to them, and we loved seeing them freely roam without a care in the world. It's always amazing to see animals so well cared for!

Right next door is Reptile Gardens, the largest reptile zoo in the country! It's incredible how many types of reptiles there are - and all shapes and sizes too!  We conveniently arrived right at feeding time, and we'll save the photos of the snakes eating their dinner for another time. ;)   

Another highlight of our trip was visiting the Wild Horse Sanctuary, where we met with Karla, who's been working there for over 13 years. She took us around the expansive property (Over 11,000 acres!) and told us the stories and names of just about every wild horse we came across. We only met a handful, considering there are HUNDREDS of wild mustangs roaming free here! It was a truly spiritual moment to see these beautiful creatures running together in the wild... We could have spent all day there!

We also did this amazing tour called the "Buffalo Safari" while we were in Custer State Park. It was so cool that we are posting a separate blog on it. Stay tuned!

 

3. IT'S AFFORDABLE

Us California kids couldn't get over how affordable everything was! From gas prices to restaurants to souvenir shopping, South Dakota is extremely reasonable! And when you're traveling on a budget like we are, this is a very attractive selling point!

 

4. IT'S EASY TO NAVIGATE

Getting around South Dakota was a piece of cake! While we did use our phones sometimes, we tried to stick to the old fashioned map the South Dakota tourism board gave us. But we really didn't even need that - everything is marked clearly, and there's never any traffic!!

5. IT'S UP-AND-COMING

Mark our words - South Dakota is on its way to becoming the new place to be! With new restaurants opening up left and right, gorgeous scenery, delicious food, top-notch coffee and friendly folks... word is bound to get out! You heard it here first!

6. IT'S FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY

Your kids are bound to love South Dakota, trust us. From all of the amazing wildlife to the hikes, caves, national parks (Mount Rushmore!), amusement parks, and even a quirky roadside destination called Wall Drug Store... there is endless entertainment for families young and old alike! 

7. THE SUNSETS

The sunsets in South Dakota were some of the most beautiful we've ever seen. There's something about the crystal clear air and magnificent mountains that makes the sky come alive at night. But again, don't take our word for it...

 

8. THE FRIENDLY LOCALS

We could NOT get over how nice everyone is in South Dakota! We didn't meet one person we didn't like, and everyone was so helpful! There's something so beautiful about seeing people's pride for their hometown, and such was the case here. It's almost like they're all letting you in on their little secret - that their state is better than most... And we have to agree.

 

9. IT'S ROMANTIC

Yep, that's right. South Dakota is extremely romantic. Watching the sunrise in the Badlands was one of the most idyllic and picturesque things we can imagine - and we were the ONLY people there! Definitely a top-ten moment in our marriage thus far.

10. ENDLESS OPPORTUNITIES!

And folks, that's just the beginning. In the few short days that we were in South Dakota we saw a lot... but there is SO much more! We have yet to explore Sioux Falls, see the famous Crazy Horse Memorial, or see the waterfalls in Spearfish! Which means it's time for us to book our next trip. STAT.

 

Thank you to South Dakota Tourism for sponsoring this post!